Digital entertainment in lockdown: the new life of culture online

During the months-long European lockdown, entertainment moved online like never before. Creativity flourished on social media platforms and, despite being locked up in their homes, people were longing for entertainment that connected them with friends and family. Meanwhile with all museums closed, European cultural heritage was given a new life online.

Digital entertainment has received a huge boost from global lockdowns. We saw the Together at Home concert on April 18, organized by Lady Gaga. We saw Parisian ballet dancers who each performed a beautiful excerpt from Romeo and Juliet separately from their own home, but digitally united on one screen. We saw virtual 3D-tours in museums and cities. We saw duets on TikTok. And we saw the Netflix Party app where you can watch the same Netflix movie together with friends in different locations at the same time, with the option to chat in real time about it.

Digital culture & Europeana

‘Cultural access’ is considered the second most important determinant of psychological well-being (preceded only by the absence of disease), according to the Commission’s New European Agenda for Culture. So, the EU’s Digital4Culture strategy launched some years ago points out the benefits of the digital revolution for a broader, more democratic access to culture and heritage as well as new ways to access cultural content.

In line with these principles, the EU played its own role in bringing digital entertainment and culture to everybody’s home during the pandemic. Europeana, a free, online portal for European cultural heritage, rapidly reacted to the lockdown.

Aleksandra Strzelichowska ESMH scientistAleksandra Strzelichowska, senior online marketing specialist at Europeana: “We quickly thought about how to use the content we already had in a way that was relevant for people during the lockdown. We created a set of games, such as spotting the differences between two slightly different version of the same painting.” Read Aleksandra Strzelichowska’s full interview

Europeana also created virtual jigsaw puzzles and a set of other games, such as spotting the differences between the original and a slightly changed version of a painting. In the changed version, for example, a dish was removed from the table or the colour of a dress was changed.

Strzelichowska’s personal favourite is the way Europeana reuses content from their annual ‘GIF IT UP’ contest. In this contest they invite people to create their own GIFs based on cultural heritage items from the Europeana collection. From the GIFs they received in the previous years, they created a story about balancing work and childcare, social distancing and physical activities for doing at home. Many people found those GIFs entertaining and identified themselves with the displayed situations.

Aleksandra Strzelichowska: “The lockdown period has proved that it is very well possible to create an online interaction with art and culture in a way that is rewarding, interesting and funny, combining entertainment with education.”

Pilot projects supported by the European Parliament
Since 2014, following the success of Parliament’s pilot projects and preparatory actions supporting the subtitling of non-fiction cultural content programmes with a view to facilitating cross-border access, the Creative Europe programme has been providing stable funding for the subtitling in English, Spanish, Polish, and Italian of a selection of ARTE programmes originally available only in French and German. These programmes are available online and in the mother tongue of almost 70 % of Europe’s citizens. Lessons from digital entertainmentWhat does the lockdown digital entertainment teach us about ourselves as humans and about digital culture? Community spirit and endless creativity on digital platforms are striking.

Dan Hassler-Forest ESMH ScientistDan Hassler-Forest, assistant professor in the department of Media and Culture Studies at Utrecht University (Netherlands): “Even being physically separated, people want to be together, want to create something together, and seek the connection. We saw this in particular on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.”Read Dan Hassler-Forest’s full interview

Hassler-Forest hopes that in the future digital entertainment will keep some of this community spirit. He explains that, traditionally, film and TV exploited the human interest in conflict. In reality, people are also highly social beings who want to help each other. It is exactly the difference between Lord of the Flies in the book and the movie versus in reality. The boys attacked each other in fiction. But when a group of boys actually washed ashore on an island — something which has actually happened — they turned out to mainly help each other.

According to Hassler-Forest, the question is how long that sense of community will continue to play a role in digital entertainment. “Of course we’re going to get movies with all the action taking place via Zoom, for example, or TV series about life in a lockdown. But what will happen to our digital culture in the long term? That will depend very much on the degree to which we return to a society like before this crisis. Or will we have a society in which we must be constantly on guard for the virus? If the latter is the case, digital culture is going to change permanently.”

MIT-professor Sherry Turkle, a psychologist who has been studying digital culture for decades, commented in the online magazine Politico about digital culture in times of lockdown. She expresses her hope that we use this time to rethink the kinds of community we can create through our digital devices. The many inspirational examples of online creativity and community sense during the lockdown are very different from the individualism of just playing an online game for yourself or of endlessly reshaping your own avatar. Turkle concludes about the community spirit in lockdown digital culture: “If, moving forward, we apply our most human instincts to our devices, that will have been a powerful COVID-19 legacy. Not only alone together, but together alone.”

Beyond digital entertainment

Sure, digital entertainment has received a push in the worldwide lockdown period. However, we shouldn’t forget that access to digital entertainment is unequally distributed over different social classes and different countries, as data from the OECD’s digital toolkit suggests. In the EU, the situation also differs according to Member States and regions, regarding their digital infrastructure, its availability, the quality of connections and obviously, the population’s access to digital equipment.

Also, when it comes to the potential initial impact of partial or complete shutdowns on private consumption in some economies, an OECD study of March 2020 points to a decline in spending on recreation and culture in G7 countries (with the greatest decline of 10% in Germany), with negative consequences for the sector and its workers. The risks are particularly high for creators, artists and those working in entertainment, an already vulnerable sector. Therefore, the current difficulties for people to earn a living in the sector will be followed by diminished audience expenditure on culture and leisure.

Additionally, the increased use and role of the Big Tech companies (Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook) and of videoconferencing apps during the pandemic has continued to confer them competitive advantages. This concentration of power is making it increasingly difficult for smaller companies, also weakened by the pandemic, to challenge them.

And last but not least, we should realise that in the physical or analogue world, much more is still possible than in any digital environment. Humans are physical beings. Humans like to use all their senses, not just their eyes and ears, but also touch, smell and taste. Humans need physical contact, physical exercise, physical play. Digital entertainment can be a great addition and even a great extension, but digital entertainment is not a complete replacement of entertainment in the physical world.

Useful Links
Europeana, free-online portal for cultural heritage
Creative approaches and collaborations, Washing hands galleries, Toilet paper galleries, Social distancing in cultural heritage GIFs, Annual GIF-making contest, Jigsaw puzzles, Spot the Differences: 8 art puzzles to play, Easter activities, Zoom backgrounds free to use
Impact of the corona crisis on the media consumption of different generations
11 movies about pandemics

Related content:
A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Dr Dan Hassler-Forest
A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Aleksandra Strzelichowska

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